Fire inspector and bartenders talk bar safety

Krista Tschetter

Krista Tschetter

Brookings is, undeniably, a college town. And college towns cater to college students. Some of whom spend after-hours recreation time in bars, clubs and venues. Places that feature live music and flickering strobes across dance floors.

And yes, places that are sometimes very crowded. With students that may have limited reaction skills after a few drinks.

In the last couple of weeks there have been two deadly tragedies in United States nightclubs and over 100 people have died.

Suddenly issues of crowd control and fire safety have leapt forward, pushing drunk driving and binge drinking to the back burner.

In Rhode Island, The Station night club erupted into an inferno in less than two minutes when the 80s band Great White shot off pyrotechnics that ignited acoustical tile behind the stage. The crowd panicked and most tried to get out of the door they came in. The mass bottle-necked, and most of the 96 people who died were found crowded around the front entrance.

Several days before that, in a Chicago night club called E2, 21 people were crushed to death when they fled from someone spraying mace or pepper spray. Once again, everyone rushed towards the front door.

Brookings Deputy Fire Chief Pete Bolzer, who is in charge of codes and inspections, thinks several factors compounded the deadliness of the situations, namely the fire in Chicago.

“My theory is that typically in a night club situation where you have alcohol consumption, (it) clouds your judgement and you’re slow to react,” he said.

“The big thing in the nightclub situation is that everybody tried to leave through the main doors. That’s a typical situation that you find as far as human nature goes … you’re going to remember the door you came in.”

While nightclub tragedies are nothing new, they typically happen in cities larger than Brookings. But the fact that local bars are relatively small doesn’t necessarily matter.

The Chicago club was also a relatively small venue. With a capacity of only 300 people, it was comparable to several larger bars in Brookings.

So barring changing human nature or prohibiting drinking in bars, is there anything local bars and patrons can do to protect themselves?

Yes, according to Bolzer.

“When you walk in … familiarize yourself with the place, take time to locate the exits.”

He urges people to keep in mind that during an emergency, tables and chair may be knocked over and provide further obstacles.

“Have an alternate plan,” he said.

There is also the question of fire codes.

Both clubs were up to code, and had the required number of exits, but Bolzer said overcrowding can exacerbate a bad situation.

“There are certain times a year I feel the bars are overcrowded … if something does happen, I could foresee injuries,” he said.

“That’s one of the biggest problems we have. Bars meet codes and have right number of exits, but then they get overcrowded.”

Several bars in Brookings do try to control overcrowding, especially on busy weekends like Hobo Days.

“We do watch it closely, like on Hobo Days we cut people off at the door if it looks like we’re getting close to capacity,” said a Chevy Lounge bartender, who said bouncers keep a counter at the door.

The Safari Lounge takes different measures.

“We have had to turn people away,” said Safari bartender David Schliessmann.

Schliessmann also said the bar also charges a cover at the door on busy weekends, which tends to lower numbers.

Other bars try to keep the crowd from getting unruly, which could trigger a panic situation like the one in Chicago.

“Our crowd control is pretty high,” said Jim’s Tap bartender Colleen Zwieg.

“If someone’s pounding on the table, or if they’re harassing someone we get them out. We try to prevent it from even happening.”

Being informed on security measures can also help. Zwieg said the staff had an informal meeting to talk about the tragedies, a measure that may have saved lives at a third night club crisis situation in Minneapolis last week.

When a fire was started by a performing band’s pyrotechnics in the Fine Line Cafe, the staff successfully evacuated 100 people safely.

They had reviewed safety measures that morning after the Chicago situation.

Zwieg said the staff has to double-check that both exits are unlocked, even when the back door beer garden isn’t being used.

“Basically, the fire plan is to get everybody out as safely and calmly as we can,” she said.

Bars aren’t exclusively high risk for dangerous crowd situations, especially when it comes to threats of fire or emergency.

Concerts and sporting events also combine large crowds and possibly high emotion.

Bolzer said he has been working with organizers at the Swiftel Center (Multiplex) to ready them for next week’s big Styx/REO Speedwagon concert.

He said additional security and stringent fire codes help deter bad situations.

“People associate security with doing something wrong, but part of their job is to make sure the exits are open and clear at all times,” he said.

He also makes sure to check all pyrotechnics and other materials used by performing groups, like the acoustical tile that made up the back drop at the Rhode Island Club that was so horrifyingly combustible.

“(We check) all of the stuff they have onstage, especially if they’re going to be using pyrotechnics,” he said.

“If they’re not flame resistant, I make sure the pyrotechnics are far enough away.”

#1.887336:2657264964.jpg:exit sign.jpg:By law, exits must be clearly marked. In crowded situations, bar patrons like these at Jim?s Tap, should be familiar with where each exit is located in case of an emergency.: